The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

What Do Kids See When They Look at Their Art?

Kids think their art is great...how can that be?

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My daughter recently opened an art gallery on the floor of our kitchen.  I'm not sure she really understands the economics of modern art (actually, I'm not sure I do either...last September, Damien Hirst racked up $200 million in a two-day sale of his factory's output of butterfly collages, pickled hooved animals, and spinner art).  She had laid out her most recent artworks - marker ink still glistening - along with some unusual doodads she'd found on the floor.  I was the lucky first customer and selected a pink and purple drawing that resembled a potato from which daisies grew at unlikely angles.  As I picked it up, she admonished me, "You have to BUY it!" - which meant that I had to also take the chewed-up soda straw that had lain beside the art.  It wasn't quite a free glass of vino at a gallery opening, but it was an inspiring purchase anyway.

We're several years deep into the kids' art scene by now; the door of our refrigerator groans under the weight of their Picasso-like output.  We are now, refretfully, having to triage some of the more derivative and uninspired pieces (alas, most of their "stuff teachers had us randomly pick up from the playground and glue to a flimsy piece of paper" collages have posed a challenge to our curatorial skills and have gone by the wayside).  Nonetheless, I marvel every time when I see what they've created.  Once I'm over my emotional reactions of pride, humor, and glee, the cold-hearted robotic empiricist in me perseverates on one burning question:

"Why do they think this is good?"

I know that sounds terrible!  I'm not saying that their precious drawings aren't good, they are.  (in a way)  And I think they're justified in thinking so.  (to a point)  But, we're not exactly talking Vermeer here, people.  Maybe I'm being too harsh.  A lot of kid art does come admirably close to a imaginary mix-up of Braque, Kandinsky, and Chagall, after all.  And, just two weekends ago, my kids both produced some mean spinner art that probably could have sold for 5 figures at Damien Hirst's show. 

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But, let's be realistic.  Kids are pretty bad artists.  Their stuff looks terrible.  Imagine what Pope Julius II would have said if Michelangelo fresoed up his chapel like a kindergartner!  ("Dammit, Michelangelo!! Why does Eve have fangs and a ray gun??")

But that's all beside the point.  Who cares if it's good?  If we love the kid, then we love the art because it is something he or she made.  It also provides a poignant snapshot of a phase in their lives that will inevitably disappear and be replaced with something new.  A child's art is a glimpse of a hidden world.  (And apparently there are no jobs for art critics in that world)

That's really the source of my consternation.  When I draw a horse, I know it really looks like a table with hair.  When kids draw a table with hair, they think they've captured Secretariat in full gallop.  How can that be?  My children have told me that my own crummy drawings of robots and princesses are great.  If this doesn't scream of deeply impaired perceptions of reality, then nothing does.

Children go through some fairly predictable phases when it comes to art.  Generally, there's a progression toward representativeness, followed at a later date by embellishments more focused on expression. 

What this looks like to a cold-hearted robotic parent is first you get a circle with a line for a mouth and 2-3 dots (depending on whether there is a nose to accompany the eyes).  Later down the road it gets legs, arms, and scribbley hair.  Sometime later, hands get puffy palms and lethal looking claw-fingers.  Let's not even talk about feet during this stage.  Then ears, eyelashes, and round comforting fingers and toes sprout.  Eventually, eyes get the doughnut treatment and the overlooked torso appears...which means clothes, jewelry, high-tech zapping gear and so on. 

What this looks like to a kid is that they are getting better and better at representing the reality around them.  When they're still young, they seem to compare what they're doing to what they want to do.  Magically, they seem to regard each drawing as a triumphic accomplishment of whatever they were working toward.

Most of us reading this know that this disappears, replaced by more of a tendency to admonish ourselves for never stacking up to some external standard.  As kids strive to create predictable working models of reality, they seem to start off with a pretty short list of things that HAVE to be a certain way.  The inalienable right to wedge into bed with their parents, the well-known fact that if ketchup touches peas it makes them poisonous, the need to know that there are people out there who love them and keep them safe.  They're up to a lot of figuring things out, and they're turning their experiences into a set of beliefs and expectations psychologists call a meaning system.  Amazingly, their meaning systems seem to allow an enormous flexibility with regard to their self-expression.  They're not shooting for the hyper-realistic Dutch Masters, they're just relishing the chance to draw the best princesses they can today. 

Think about the standards and rules you've brought into your meaning system.  Some things we do need to be held to the highest standard, but not everything.  Are there new opportunities you'd like to pursue, important things you'd like to say?  Are you struggling to create a new direction in your life?  If what's holding you back is the belief that you might not do it as well as the best people do, think about those millions of kids guilelessly churning out potatoes with dot eyes and spindly little arms.  If they can love that, can't you find a way to at least give yourself a break?

© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.

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